Social commentary can very broadly be understood as expressing an opinion on society. In film, it can be used both implicitly and explicitly and every genre has its own approach to incorporate commentary. Comedies may use humor to take on real-life issues in the form of satire. Given the nature of the drama genre, it is easy for them to tackle those same topics in a more head-on way. Dramas and documentaries, alike, are able to incite empathy, one of the most powerful emotions, from its audience. Horror films can provoke probably the second most powerful; fear, and what is scarier than seeing the gruesome manifestation of real, societal ills?
It is easy to dismiss horror films as being fictional fantasy, however, many of the real horrors in these films are, or are at least based off of, real-life circumstances. Similar to comedy, horror films have the ability to subvert the narrative to reveal an alternative, deeper meaning behind the seemingly innocuous plotline. This quality makes horror films one of the most powerful, and highly underrated, tools for social commentary.
One of the earliest, most notable examples of this is doomsday film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers(1956). In the film, aliens infiltrate a small town by taking over the bodies of the townspeople, leaving their emotions, memories and physical appearances intact, but making them devoid of any emotion. Released just over a decade after WWII, the country was facing new threats. One of the biggest fears of the American people, in the 1950s, was the fear of communism spreading to our allies abroad, but also at home. Considering when it was made and released, as well as its content, it is easy to see how Invasion of the Body Snatchers artistically portrays this same fear of an “other” infiltrating and obstructing the livelihoods of American citizens. could be seen as a response to the Cold War and Atomic Age anxieties of the 1950s. The imposters were able to seamlessly blend in, which is what made the concept so terrifying.
Get Out (2017) is the arguably the most popular social thriller/horror film of the decade. It made waves when it hit theaters, using horror as a tool to explore the lineage of racism against Black people in America. It quickly became critically acclaimed, achieving an admirable and well-earned 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2018. However, it is not the first film of its kind. The horror genre has a long-standing history of critiquing social norms, even if only latently.
Unlike with most horror films, where there is a clear antagonistic presence or villain, a horror film with social commentary will aim to complicate that character’s role in some way. Social commentary is often used as a way to either contextualize or reveal the biases that exist within the characters or audience themselves. Race in horror films has always had an interesting history, whether that’s the notable stereotypes that the plot typically falls victim to (Black characters being the first to get killed off, for example) or the generally limited representation we see on screen. That being said, there is a legacy of “racism” being the ultimate villain in many films from the genre.
The 1982 film, White Dog, is arguably one of the most famous films of the horror/thriller genre to have anti-Black racism be the crux of the film. The film is about a white, Hollywood actress who finds a dog (who is also white). Everything seems perfectly normal until she discovers that the dog was trained by a white racist to attack and kill Black people on sight. The film quickly centers around how Keys, a black man, is determined to un-teach the racism that this dog has been taught its whole life. Here, the message of the film is slightly more explicit: Anti-Black racism in this country has been passed down generationally and impacts every aspect of American life, however, the same way racism is taught and learned, it can also be unlearned. If you think of the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” it’s pretty easy to see how Keys’ attempt to teach the white dog not hurt Black people becomes applicable to our own behavior, especially our views on race and racism.
These are just a few of a well-documented collection of horror films that serve an allegorical purpose. Given the era of filmmaking we are in now, it is especially interesting to see how these films from the past will be read and received today. We have films like Get Out becoming huge, commercial successes, while films such as White Dog went unreleased at the time of its creation. As we are all desperately anticipating Jordan Peele’s next film, Us (2019), we should take a deep-dive into the films that started it all.
AUTHOR: UMA MOHANTY
Uma Mohanty is a junior at the New School studying Political Science & Screen Studies minor. Uma is specifically interested in international human rights issues, as well as visual imagery (photography and film) and how those forms of media can engage social/political issues. Uma was born in Mumbai, India, but grew up in upstate New York. She has previous experience working with the Hessischer Flüchtlingsrat (Refugee Council of Hessen), in Frankfurt, Germany, as well as media nonprofits, such as NYC’s Educational Video Center. In her free time, Uma is an avid moviegoer and foodie. She also loves to explore the city, taking photographs and videos of places and people that spark her social and creative interests.